Are pinch/prong collars magic?

pinch collar 3                                                  *

There’s a lot of information going around about training tools. Some factual, some less so. A lot of it is heavily steeped in emotion and bias. I suppose I would be lying if I didn’t make it clear that I’m biased myself, I don’t advocate tools that use pain, fear or intimidation to function. I don’t need them, and if a person is willing to learn, they won’t need them either. But that aside, I feel that it’s important to give factual, unbiased information so that consumers are armed with accurate information in order to make an informed training tool decision. If something uses pain to work, people should be aware. So where do pinch collars stand? How do they work, and why do they work?

You have several variations of the pinch collar. Most have thin prongs of uniform thickness, while a few have triangular projections, ending in a point. Most are metal, while a few are plastic. Most of these collars are martingales, which means that they’re looser at rest, but tighten when pulled on by the handler, or when the dog pulls against the leash and applies pressure. The correct placement is high on the neck, under the ears. In order to stay in proper placement, high on the neck (weakest, most vulnerable point), the collar must fit snug, so tight enough not to slide down, and then even tighter when the collar is being actively utilized.

When a correction (yanked on by the handler or the dog straining on the leash) is given, the collar tightens and the prongs dig in, the standard prongs (not the triangular projection type) also pinch together at the ends. If skin is caught, the skin is pinched between the prongs. Fur and hair isn’t a protection, the smooth metal prongs or smooth plastic triangles part all but the most matted fur/hair and make full on contact with skin.

Handlers often use the collars as positive punishment. This means the addition of a punitive stimulus. An example would be, if a dog is doing an undesired behavior, you’d yank on the collar in order to motivate the dog to decrease this behavior. You can also keep pressure on the collar until the dog gives into your directions. This would be negative reinforcement. This means the removal of the stimulus is reinforcing (rewarding). An example would be keeping the collar tight until the dog stops straining against the leash. The collar pressure being removed is nice by comparison.

You’ll hear a lot of arguments for and against pinch collars. They don’t hurt, it’s like a mother dog’s bite (correction) to a puppy, and so on.

The mother’s bite claim mentioned here is somewhat funny to me. You see, bitches use what’s called muzzle grabbing. You can read about it here. So to keep in line with the logic that the collar brings back old memories of being corrected by their mother when they were pups, the collars should be worn on the face for this to make any sense. Assuming an adult will actually make this leap in logic and memory. I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to remember much from when I was a baby.

The other mentioned argument for pinch collars is the claim that they don’t hurt. And that can be correct, they don’t always have to hurt in order to work. You can use a lower level of application if you first develop it as a conditioned punisher, by pairing non-painful levels of correction WITH painful levels of correction, to give the non-painful levels meaning. “A conditioned stimulus that signifies that an aversive is coming. Used to deter or interrupt behavior; if the behavior halts or changes, the aversive may be avoided. For example, a trainer that says “ack” to interrupt a behavior, or the warning beep of a shock collar when a dog gets too close to the boundary of an electric fence.” If you don’t first condition these non-painful levels as a punisher, then all but the most sensitive of dogs will easily ignore it because it’s not motivating enough to change behavior. An non-painful correction just isn’t inherently aversive to the vast majority of dogs. You have to make that level aversive. Else, why should the dog care and not just ignore it?

This doesn’t just go for pinch collars, it also applies to other punitive devices and collars. Your shock collars, choke/slip collars, head halters in some cases, some harnesses that act like a noose, and so on.

So yes, initially it must hurt to lend meaning to the non-painful levels. It doesn’t just end there though, you must repeat the pairing (conditioning), or up the ante and increase it, periodically in order to prevent or fix a punishment callous. This is when tolerance develops for the current level, and thus this level no longer serves to motivate behavior change in order to avoid it.

It’s a good idea to try the tool on yourself. While you’re not a dog, and you’re not likely to try it around your throat, although this would be the CLOSEST comparison to a dog’s experience and I DO recommend you get on the floor, put it on your throat and have someone correct you, trying it on your arm is an okay test if you keep some factors in mind.

1. The arm is significantly less sensitive than the throat. This is why most glucose meters have evolved to take blood from your arm now instead of your finger.

2,. The arm doesn’t have fragile structures, such as the hyoid apparatus, thyroid gland, vertebrae, etc.

3. Humans have thicker, less sensitive skin than dogs.

“Canine skin has several layers, including an outer epidermis that is constantly being replaced and an inner dermis that contains nerves and blood vessels. Canine skin is thinner and much more sensitive than human skin.” *

“The epidermis of a dog is 3-5 cells thick however in humans it is at least 10-15 cells thick.” *

4. You hopefully don’t have as much hair or fur on your arms as a dog has on their neck. But remember, the fur doesn’t really play a part as it gets parted by the points. The argument that fur somehow softens the effect is moot.

5. Most dog’s necks are lower than your hand. This means you have to deliver the correction to your arm at an upwards angle.

6. The collar MUST be fitted to your arm’s circumference! A collar much bigger than your arm won’t apply as much pressure as a collar that fits your arm. Your dog is more than likely wearing the appropriately sized collar fitted to his neck’s circumference, if not smaller to apply even more pressure, which will inflict an even greater degree of pain.

For the sake of getting photos, I did the pinch collar test on my arm today.

pinch 1

The first picture is immediately following varying levels of pressure, all of which I’ve observed used in training. From somewhat gentle to much harsher. And yes, at the levels of application that motivate, it does hurt.

pinch 2

 The second picture is several hours later.

After all, pinch collars aren’t magic. If they don’t hurt, and the lower levels don’t promise painful levels if not heeded, why should the dog care? Pinch collars utilize pain as their motivation factor. Pain doesn’t suddenly make the dog understand what you’re trying to teach him, better teaching does. Pain doesn’t solve behavior problems, pain just suppresses the outward signs.

Dogs are strongly associative learners. This means that they can associate what they’re experiencing, say the pain from a pinch collar, with what they happen to be near or even looking at. They lack our human logic and reasoning. For all they understand, yes, the pain did happen because they were near a child, dog, stranger, etc. Hello new or worse behavior problems. Professional trainers who utilize tools such as pinch collars will usually use the collar for this as well, in order to suppress the dog communicating their defensive fear towards whatever they think is causing them the pain.

All in all, not such a great tool after all, in my opinion. But what do you think?

Update! Nope, I still haven’t changed my stance on pinch collars. But I’ve been informed that there is a rare creature called the “Elusive Prong-Collar Loving Dog”.* This not often seen creature will actually jump for joy when the prong collar comes out because he just can’t wait to feel it around his neck! Well, why is it? Is he a masochist? Is he a glutton for pain?

Nope! This dog just can’t wait to go on walkies or whatever other activity the pinch collar signifies. While the pain from the pinch collar is indeed punitive, the enjoyment of getting to go for a walk trumps the unpleasantness of the collar. It’s why we can train animals to participate in their own health care. In your local zoo, the resident lion doesn’t enjoy getting stabbed with a needle for his blood draw, but he’ll willingly back onto it, because the juicy steak reward makes it worth his while.

* Photo credited to Judith Beam, who pulled an old collar out of storage for me. She does NOT actively use pinch collars!

*http://www.clickertraining.com/glossary

*http://www.merckmanuals.com/pethealth/dog_basics/description_and_physical_characteristics_of_dogs/description_and_physical_characteristics_of_dogs.html

*http://www.vetwest.com.au/pet-library/skin-the-difference-between-canine-and-human-skin

*http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/cryptozoology-101-hunt-elusive-prong-collar-loving-dog

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